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What Does Non-Binary Mean?

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Gender and sexuality are diverse and complex phenomena that go beyond the binary gender system. While non-binary individuals have been around since the beginning of time, western society has only just begun to acknowledge their existence. As the nonbinary community’s voices and images are becoming more known, so, too are their needs.

Gender and sex are not interchangeable notions

To better understand what nonbinary means, we first need to understand that gender and sex are two different things. They are not bound to one another and may vary a great deal from one person to another. While sex is initially assigned at birth based on biology, gender is an identity that may be discovered late, as a person establishes self-awareness and the ability to express themself.

In the western world, traditionally, people have been placed into two categories: men and women. Along with this has come the message that sex should dictate people’s gender identity. In other words, society has historically labeled cisgender people as normal or the default, while marginalizing individuals who challenge its excessive confines.

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Sex and gender can be different, and the individuals who feel their sex does not reflect their gender are what we know as transgender people. While many still cling to the traditional male and female archetypes, we know that the world is so much more diverse than these two categories. And people who do not adhere to the concept of binary genders often call themselves nonbinary.

What is Gender Identity?

Gender identity is the way a person perceives their own gender. It is an internal belief and should not be confused with gender presentation – the way a person expresses their gender visually. Since non-binary identity may be privately known by an individual, a person’s gender identity cannot be inferred based on their appearance.

While some nonbinary folks do identify as “trans people,” nonbinary gender identities are vast and complex and can sometimes challenge this umbrella term. A trans person is someone who doesn’t identify with the sex assigned at birth, while a non-binary person may:

  • partially identify with the sex assigned at birth
  • experience and exhibit a variety of conventionally masculine and feminine traits
  • be gender-fluid or genderqueer – having a gender identity that isn’t fixed
  • be pangender – have an androgynous identity that encapsulates the entire gender spectrum
  • be bigender, demigender, or intergender – feel a partial connection to a gender
  • be agender – does not identify with any gender

Some transgender people identify as nonbinary, and some nonbinary individuals identify as transgender. But just like with the notions of sex and gender, transgender and nonbinary are not interchangeable concepts.

The nonbinary gender spectrum encompasses many distinct gender identities, which lay beyond binary gender. It’s important to understand the concept of non-binary gender identities and the ways in which people’s experience of gender can vary.  Understanding this lets us create a more inclusive world. By including all genders and the non-binary community, we can create equity in the broader community.

What are the struggles of trans and nonbinary people?

The trans and nonbinary community is vast, diverse, and increasingly visible. According to a study conducted by the William Institute, a research center focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, there are about 1.2 million nonbinary LGBTQ adults in the United States. However, despite increasing visibility, the nonbinary and LGBTQ community’s struggles often remain unaddressed.

Despite society’s burgeoning awareness of nonbinary gender identities and gender-neutral individuals, the average cisgender person still struggles to grasp the diverse range of gender identities. The gender binary is, after all, a social construct meant to silence the full range of gender expression.

Trans women, trans men, and nonbinary people in the US often struggle with mental health issues, each category reporting different lived experiences and mental health outcomes caused not necessarily by their gender identity but mostly by the injustice and abuse, they have to face on a daily basis from a society that refuses to include them.

Studies show that 1 in 6 members of Generation Z identify as LGBT. More than half of the members of the LGBTQ community in the US have reported having been physically or sexually assaulted and nearly 94 percent have considered suicide. Unfortunately, due to the lack of support and tolerance, transgender and nonbinary youth is 2 to 2.5 times as likely to consider or attempt suicide compared to their cisgender peers within the LGBTQ community.

What support is needed by the Nonbinary community?

First of all, the trans and nonbinary communities, which include a wide variety of gender identities, are calling for understanding and acceptance. They need more people to learn to differentiate between gender identity and sex. They need others to understand that this conversation is not about sexual orientation. Cisgender, transgender, and nonbinary people’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to their gender identity.

Secondly, the community needs to not just be tolerated but accepted and celebrated for who they are. This includes evolving language to reflect the variety of gender and learning to use people’s correct pronouns. Nonbinary people may use binary pronouns, such as she/her/hers or he/him/his, but they can also use gender-neutral pronouns, such as they/them/theirs, ze/hir/his, or ze/zir/zirs. It’s normal for the pronouns someone prefers to evolve over time and this should be respected. For example, in a safe space, nonbinary individuals may prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns, while in a more formal environment or around conservative family members, they may opt for the traditional binary pronouns. One should always defer to the person’s needs at a given moment.

Be sensitive and adopt a gender-neutral language into everyday conversations. Gender-neutral language is the best way to avoid using incorrect pronouns and misgendering people. Gender-neutral and simple terms like child, sibling, parent, partner, spouse, person, or people are great examples. Each of them is a broad term that allows people to feel included, respected, and seen.